Arab-American Agenda: Post Sept. 11

Faced with post 9-11 discrimination, Arab Americans rally in suburban D.C. to find their political voice

Detroit News
6 June 2002

By Lisa Zagaroli

ADC Convention

   WASHINGTON -- Brian Mosallam played college football with a number of African Americans and now has many as clients, but the American of Arab descent never related to their feelings of discrimination until after Sept. 11. 

"I never understood their logic of not wanting to go somewhere or feeling uncomfortable in some places," said Mosallam, a financial analyst from Dearborn. "After 9-11, you have an appreciation for what they went through and understand what they were talking about. It's brought me closer to that community and made me understand a little more what they've been through through the years." 

Max Ortiz / The Detroit News

Brian Mosallam said he was humiliated on his way to Tallahassee, Fla., when a flight attendant announced on the microphone that he was selected for a thorough search.

Mosallam is one of about 100 Michigan residents who plan to attend the 19th annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which begins today in suburban Washington. With 2,000 attendees it is expected to be one of the largest official gatherings of Arab Americans to discuss post 9-11 issues. 

As they tackle some tough challenges facing their community, ranging from politics that threaten the Middle East peace process to ethnicity-based civil rights violations, they arrive in the nation's capital with seemingly even more resolve to embrace the American system and make it work for them, said Imad Hamad, regional Midwest director of the organization. And they're drawing on the experiences of folks who fought civil rights battles before them. 

"There is no better time for us as Arab Americans to contribute, not only to be part of the healing process but part of the making and shaping the future of our nation and in its beating heart, the precious civil rights we all care about," Hamad said. "Maybe it is our turn as the Arab-American community to be in the hot front seat, and we see it as quite a challenge as we are trying to rise to it." 

Robin Buckson / The Detroit News

Lindsay Safiedine, right, sitting with her husband, Yehya, is one of about 100 Michigan-area residents attending the 19th annual convention of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in suburban Washington.

Hamad said the injustices he believes have been suffered -- including Arabs being detained without being charged with a crime, having attorney-client conversations monitored and federal questioning of Arabic men due to their ethnicity -- actually are "becoming quite an incentive for us as Arab Americans." 

"The African-American community did it, the Jewish-American community did it, the Spanish-American community did it -- I see us doing it," Hamad said. "That's the pride we all share, that when you're dedicated and devoted, I think the American fabric will always prevail. 

"Martin Luther King was not seen as a desired civil rights leader but today we all stand in honor of this great man ... And I see no difference at this point in time. Our struggle here as an Arab-American community is a continuation of those that went before us and those that are continuing to face similar and different challenges." 

Hamad said his goal is for people to understand that there is no contradiction between the national interest and the civil rights of Arab Americans and others. He said that was proven in Detroit with good relations between Arabs and federal investigators. 

Jeffrey Collins, appointed U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan on Nov. 19, said he initiated monthly meetings with members of the Anti-Discrimination Committee immediately, and they continue today, because he felt the community was vulnerable. 

"I wanted to express compassion, concern and sensitivity. And I wanted to listen to their concerns," Collins said. "So Imad stepped up to the plate. He was organized. He invited other people whom I didn't know to the meetings. I told him, 'You invite the stakeholders,' and every month, he would bring in people and it helped a great deal as a relationship builder, which has gotten better with time." 

Collins said ADC also was helpful when his office conducted interviews of roughly 500 men who had been in the United States with non-immigrant visas since January 2000. 

"Many people who were contacted by us went to ADC to ask for advice, and their advice was to cooperate with law enforcement," he said. "The purpose of the interviews was to gain information to prevent future terrorism. None of the men contacted were deported or arrested or anything. It was merely a request for help, and the Arab-American community answered the call, due in large measure to the ADC." 

The group's conference agenda begins with a day of lobbying on Capitol Hill. Among the chief topics will be their opposition to two pending bills, one that puts restrictions on Palestinians and the other that imposes sanctions on the Syrians. Arab Americans view both as a deterrent to the Middle East peace process. 

Rep. John Dingell

In a letter to Rep. John Dingell, D-Dearborn, one of only 21 House members who voted against a recent "solidarity with Israel" vote, Assistant Secretary of State Paul Kelly said he viewed both bills as "unhelpful at this time." 

"We do not encourage or support the introduction of legislation during this critical period that appears one-sided to the majority of the nations in the Middle East region, places restrictions on the president's actions and thus ties his hands, or will have a negative impact on our ability to gain the support of one or more of the parties to an agreed settlement of the crisis," said the May 24 letter from Kelly, who oversees legislative affairs for the State Department. 

Another significant topic of discussion at the convention will be how to deal with civil rights violations. One session, titled "flying while brown," will focus on how Arabs are treated by airlines. 

On Tuesday, five men sued four airlines, including Northwest, alleging they weren't allowed to fly because of anti-Arab prejudice in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. 

Arab groups have compiled at least 60 examples of similar treatment at airports after a group of Arabs hijacked four airplanes and killed 3,000 people in New York, suburban Washington and rural Pennsylvania. 

Mosallam, the financial analyst from Dearborn, said he was humiliated on his way to Tallahassee, Fla., to view the Florida State-Miami football game a couple weeks after Sept. 11. Awaiting a connection in Atlanta, his name was announced on the microphone by the Delta Airlines gate attendant as having been randomly selected for a thorough search. 

"The other person they called up happened by coincidence to look Middle Eastern also," said Mosallam, 28, who was captain of Michigan State's football team and whose father is a U.S. Army veteran and whose mother is a longtime employee of Ford Motor Co. 

"When I got on that plane, there were people who came up to pat me on the shoulder that said, 'Don't worry about it.' I was really upset, I was really embarrassed."  Mosallam said he's always felt "an underlying current" of discrimination against Arabs, but "after 9-11 people can be more vocal about it and get away with it."

"It's been open season on Arabs and Muslims on just about every news station," Mosallam said. 

"Put it this way, if this government came out and said we want to interview potential African Americans for information leading up to terrorist activity, the whole country would be in an outcry. But because they're Arabs, they can get away with it." 

A Lebanese business owner from Dearborn said he hopes attending his third conference will help give Arabs a unified voice in Washington. 

"After Sept. 11, I felt like every time as an Arab American I have to explain something," said Fouad Hannawi, who owns a used car lot and mechanic shop. 

James Zogby, who co-founded the ADC and is now president of the Arab American Institute, said he thinks grass-roots lobbying by the Arab community has been effective over the last 20 years. 

"I remember (political) candidates were being pressed to give money back to Arab Americans, and they did," Zogby said. "Now we are not only welcome in both parties, but we have leadership positions in both parties. 

"No, we're not winning all the votes," he added. "But we're participating in the debate. You keep your eye on the long haul and don't get frustrated. There are changes being made and more changes yet to be made." 

Detroit News Staff Writer Shawn D. Lewis contributed to this report. You can reach Lisa Zagaroli at (202) 662-7370 or lzagaroli@detnews.com.

 

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